By Safiyyah Ismail, DataEQ Analyst
The advance of information and communication technology (ICT), coupled with the widespread usage of social media, provided tertiary institutions with valuable multiway communication platforms to support their students during the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdowns.
This is according to a new study conducted by DataEQ, in partnership with two South African universities, which verified and analysed social media data from 2017 to 2021 to gain insights into how higher education and training (HET) institutions leveraged social platforms to support their students, and provide an analysis of student experiences.
A combined total of 840 074 mentions about the HETs were retrieved, from which a random sample of 143 516 consumer and press mentions were used to carry out sentiment and thematic analysis after being processed through DataEQ’s Crowd of human contributors for evaluation and verification.
HOW ARE HET INSTITUTIONS SUPPORTING STUDENTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA?
Institutions mainly utilised Facebook and Twitter posts to inform students of upcoming events, competitions, general announcements, and deadlines. These posts often advertised available full- and part-time courses available, along with application and registration open and closing dates.
Bursary and alumni support
The promotion of bursary, learnership, and internship opportunities on social media was well received by students. There is often worry about “what comes next” after students have graduated, particularly in a country where job opportunities are scarce. Providing students with these exit support opportunities can ease some of this anxiety and help set them up for a prosperous future.
Efforts to improve digital access
During lockdown, students had to attend class virtually. This presented many issues, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who had limited access to computers and stable internet. Nonetheless, several HETs used their social media presence to encourage students to sign up for free data and laptops. HETs often posted links to online learning material, digital support channels, and eLearning platforms to offer additional support. This suggests that zero-rated pages and resources are critical to supporting students working remotely.
Several institutions posted COVID-19-related information on their respective social media pages. This included information about the pandemic, how students and staff can play their part in curbing the virus, and various COVID-19 protocols implemented to prevent an outbreak upon the return to campus.
WHAT ISSUES WERE TOP OF MIND FOR STUDENTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA?
Enrolment and applications were critical focal points
Student requests about the application and registration process drove positive online conversation. Other requests often focused on whether specific courses are offered, the number of spaces available, the cost, and academic requirements.
Amongst the HETs, DataEQ found that students showed particular interest in studying engineering (12.8%), tourism (6.2%), teaching (40%), and nursing/health (3.6%). Universities and colleges could use this information to target courses that closely align with the labour market needs and students’ interests.
Campus events drove traction
Campus activities and sporting events form a significant part of student life. It is unsurprising then that students actively posted about and engaged in events that occurred on campuses.
Stumbling blocks: NSFAS and COVID-19
The most prominent speedbump in the student journey was financing. Throughout the reporting period and across HETs, the National Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) was a key driver of student frustration. Students often reported experiencing delays with the allocation and dispersal of these funds. Students also reported being unable to pay for their tuition fees, accommodation, and day-to-day necessities as a result of not receiving their NFSAS allowances. This subsequently led to delays in registration and obtaining academic transcripts and certificates due to unpaid fees.
NFSAS students were further burdened when lockdowns forced students to study via distance learning. Numerous students complained about being unable to buy data to access their online learning materials. While there may be an underlying miscommunication issue between HET management and NSFAS offices, the institutions should provide more leeway to NFSAS students, particularly around registration.
HETs gave inconsistent social media support
While students leveraged social media platforms to communicate with faculty, staff, and peers for both academic and non-academic purposes, the use of social media by the institutions to respond to student inquiries was less prominent.
Although some institutions were responsive to queries and requests, most replies were not particularly informative and did little to help solve the issue at hand. Rather, students were referred to other support channels such as the website, academic offices, or the student portal.
This lack of response and resolution from institutions highlights a need for improved in-house faculty social media support teams. HETs, therefore, need to invest in providing their social media managers with training to better understand the experiences of students, as well as the tools to accurately categorise and prioritise the queries they are faced with.
The study findings show that, in addition to providing a cost-effective multi-way communication platform, social media provides colleges and universities with an opportunity to identify areas in need of improvement. Conversely, social media offers a vast untapped data pool which can be structured and analysed in real time, delivering immediate feedback to HETs around key themes driving positive interactions with faculty initiatives.